Monday, January 14, 2008

happy hour

Not only is it 5:00 somewhere, it is 5:00 HERE. The salmon (wild) is marinating, the sweet potatoes and samosas (alas, not homemade - they are on my list of "someday, I will make these.") are in the oven, and I have already sautéd the bok choy in garlic and ginger. Today I am packing supplies to take to Cleveland: a whole suitcase full of paints, screens, and fabrics. I may yet unpack and put them in a box to ship them, but it is less expensive to let Continental airlines take them. I've double-wrapped my ProChem paints in newspaper, plastic, and bubble wrap, but I am willing to bet they get opened and not properly closed again. It has happened before. My clothes are going in the small suitcase. But of course, I have almost two weeks to unpack, rearrange, repack, and do it again.

This morning I went to the Gaelen Gallery at the JCC to do a gallery talk about my exhibit to the "senior citizens" group that meets there every week, or for all I know, every day. (I hate that term, don't you? Senior, forgodsake - I hate to think where they are going after they graduate.)

The group was lively, bright, and had interesting questions -- but it was beforehand and afterwards that I was blown away by conversations with two people. Before the program started, one of the gallery employees came in to tell me what an impact this piece had had on him.
It's the GHETTO,he said. It looks just like where I grew up in the PROJECTS in Newark: everybody squeezed in like sardines - buildings close together, people killing each other: the PROJECTS. Yes, I said - it was Poland and it was a PROJECT - a Soviet apartment block, concrete, chipped, falling off the building, laundry hanging from the balconies, impersonal, ugly, poor - a government project in Eastern Europe. But it could have been anywhere.We talked about the word GHETTO and how it is an Italian word that means "foundry." The first ghetto was in 16th Century Venice, in the area where there was a metal foundry. The word has since taken on a broader meaning, of course.

We then had a discussion about government-built housing - the projects of the '60's - well meaning but ill-conceived -- now being blown up and replaced by town houses. David, the man I was speaking to, was sure that every government in the world had the same set of plans, passed from one to the other: whether in Dubai, Italy, France, or in Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, Cleveland, - urban blight created by tearing down neighborhoods and building monolithic, impersonal, housing. The issues are more complex than we could have talked about in the 15 minutes we were together, but it was a stimulating conversation.

There are certain universals - and I was so happy that my art struck a chord with this man, who is an artist himself, and that he had been in to look at that piece many times in the week since it went up. For me, that is what all art is about: having the viewer bring his/her own experiences & sensibilities to a piece and having a dialog with it. Don't you feel that way, too?

The second high point came after the program, as I was walking out. A woman named Helen approached me and told me that her heart stopped when she saw this piece:
I was in Auschwitz, she said. I wouldn't go back to visit. Sent to the camps as a child with her parents and brother, she, her father, and her brother somehow survived. She showed me her tattoo - the blue numbers on her left forearm, there since she was a child. The wires were electrified at night, but not during the day, she said. The matron liked me and would give me extra bread,so I took it to the fence and threw it to my father. She was 14 when the camps were liberated, met her husband at 15 and married at 16.

I hardly knew what to say: it was the first time I had ever spoken to a survivor about her/his experience. When I was a child there was a couple who had a handbag store in Montclair. They had numbers tattoo'd on their forearms and my parents used to whisper about the fact that they had been in the camps. It was not ever a subject to be brought up in their presence but it was difficult not to look.

I went to give a gallery talk this morning and I got far more in return than I was able to give.


TALL GIRL said...

Rayna, what a wonderful commentary on your talk at the JCC. Years ago I met an Auchswitz survivor in of all places the sauna at the gym. I loved our conversations. And I love your line about getting something back. Sounds like a wonderful day.

I have often thought of writing a book about old people's stories. If I wait much longer, it will be about my own generation!

Judy said...

I remember vividly the one and only time I saw a survivor's tatoo: so very chilling. You have brought back some memories tonight.

Have a great trip!


PaMdora said...

Isn't it amazing the people you find when you go out your door?

Here we have a "senior" art group, but they call themselves Studio 55 because everyone is over 55. It thought that was a clever name.

Rayna said...

LOL, Carol - our kids think we're already there. Pam - I love the Studio 55 name. Judy - it puts everything in perspective, doesn't it?

Cathy in gorgeous Sonoma County said...

What a tribute to you and your work. Your story resonated with me too.I saw\"Schindler's List" alone since my friends only go to movies "for entertainment". I was struck dumb be the visuals. The woman next to me sobbed aloud. After the movie was over, she apologized and expliened she was a survivor. I'll never forget her.

Frances said...

Rayna I felt very moved by this post, high rise cramped living is still alive and kicking around the world and unfortunately there is still mass ethnic killing, it's nice to know some people survied to tell the tale, sometimes there are no survivors and the story remains lost,

marion said...

Rayna, I wonder if you've read 'The Book Thief', by Markus Zusak...if not, get it. It is amazing.

Rayna said...

Marion, my friend Judy Langille has highly recommended "The Book Thief" and it's on my to-buy list.

Cathy - when I was at Auschwitz/Birkenau, I could not get over the fact that I was standing exactly where Schindler's List was shot, looking at the same (ironically gorgeous) mountains that were in the film.

Frances - that survivor Helen said that her biggest sorrow was that everyone from that time was dying and there would be no one left who remembered. We look at Kosovo, what is happening in many countries in Africa and the middle east and realize that NOBODY has learned anything and that nothing ever changes. Do not get me started on man's inhumanity to man. We treat our animals better.

Terry said...

I was just thinking, as I read your post, that the holocaust survivors ranks must be dwindling rapidly. My world history professor in college was an Auchswitz survivor. I remember the day we learned that in class. He told about the death camps and the Nazis, then he said, "I know this because I was there" and he pushed up his sleeve to show his tattoo. You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom. He was a wonderful teacher, a charming man. He died many years ago in a car accident but I think of him frequently.

Gerrie said...

I got chills when I read this post, Rayna. Isn't this why we make art?

Russ Little said...

Rayna, thanks for sharing these wonderful stories. They're deeply touching and the comments are moving as well. I'm so happy for you to have had these encounters. Gerrie's post sums up my thoughts very well. Isn't this why we make art? It's fun, and it's great play, and it's challenging, but ultimately it's a way to connect with others and to give them a glimpse of how we see the world. -Russ

Sarah Ann Smith said...

Rayna... one day in grad school I was walking across a slushy field in clogs. One of my professors was crossing not too far away from a different angle and joined me. We started chatting, then his eyes caught my clogs. He had been a POW during the war, and never, EVER talked about it.

He paused mid sentence, said "they used to make us wear shoes like that in the camps, but all wood", then picked up where he left off.... I've never forgotten it.

And a friend's dad, when I was in junior high, never wore short sleeved shirts. Always long-sleeve, with the shirts only rolled back once at the cuff... to hide his tattoo. He forbad Heidi from watching Hogan's Heroes (popular then--a farce about a German POW camp), and used to stay up late to watch old WW2 movies. Heidi said he still cheered every time a Nazi was killed.

Makes you think. Thanks for sharing... what an amazing day for you....

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